Last week, I had the chance to talk with Joel Manby, CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, about his experience on the CBS reality show, “Undercover Boss,” in which he went undercover to work frontline jobs at Herschend properties.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch the show, you can see the full episode here on the CBS web site. Be warned—you may want to keep a box of tissues nearby.
In our discussion, Manby (below, right) divulged some great lessons learned from the experience which we weren’t able to talk about until after the airing. Here’s part two of our interview:
IAAPA: Why did you choose those specific locations to visit (Ride the Ducks at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta, Georgia; Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri; and Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey)?
Manby: I’ve visited Dollywood so often that I knew they might recognize me. Even at Silver Dollar City, I’ve worked the gates there, so we had to wait for the people who knew me to go on break for 20 minutes and we filmed in that small window of time. Also, we just recently purchased the aquarium, so I hadn’t really gotten to know the workers there yet. And with Ride the Ducks, if you don’t go on tour with that particular captain, you might not meet them.
What reactions did you get from workers who appeared on the show as well as park employees after the big reveal?
To see the look on the hosts’ faces when they met me and realized who I was—it was so much fun. What was really meaningful was when I got to reinforce what I saw in them and how great they were. People don’t get enough encouragement in life, so the chance to do that was really fun.
As far as the rest of the Herschend staff, since filming, we’ve experienced a huge morale boost.
Is there anything you want HFE to do differently, or objectives you’ve reevaluated since stepping into someone else’s shoes?
The main changes we implemented were those to programs that will help our employees.
We really beefed up the marketing for our Share it Forward program to motivate people to apply for it. As a leader, if you see someone who has just lost their health insurance or has a family crisis, it’s your job to help them through that time.
We added a component within the Share it Forward Foundation, as well. Mercedes and Jennifer, who were both on the show, are single parents. This inspired us to create a new program for single parents. If you make under a certain income level and you’re a single parent, you’ll be able to get a financial stipend for medical or daycare needs to help pay for expenses like childcare and health care. Seeing things firsthand helped me to see the need for this.
Another thing we did was establish a scholarship in honor of Jack and Peter Herschend. We’ll annually fund a full-time educational scholarship during their school year, and while they’re in school, we’ll pay them half of the salary they earn over the summer, so they don’t have to go part time and work.
Also, we have a sub-program of Share It Forward called an Emergency Needs Program for people in financial crisis. We gave Richard [from the show] the catastrophic limit of $10,000 and went in there with a construction crew and redid his doors and heating system. For me, that was truly one of the highlights of being with Herschend. It was a really gratifying moment, and he has such a sweet family that it was all really meaningful.
Albert, who you saw on the show, would have had to work for seven years to get his undergraduate degree. In the summer, they’ll make their full-time wage, and then when they’re in school and not working, they’ll still make half of their salary.
That’s what I got when I worked with General Motors during college. Harvard was still expensive back then, and I never would have been able to afford it. But they paid me half my salary as I lived in Boston and worked for them. Also, when I was in high school, a man funded my private education, so I’ve had both a company and an individual help me go to private schools. This is a way for our company to give back—and everyone can apply.
How do you feel about the outcome of the show and the decisions you made because of it?
The decisions we’ve made as a result of the show are all difficult, because they all cost money. But it all goes back to what we’re trying to create—a culture of servant leadership. The guest experience can never rise any higher than the passion of your employees. It is our responsibility to take care of them.
One thing I was really trying not to do was a lot of "one-offs." I wanted to do something systemic throughout the whole company. We didn’t have much time so that was hard. We literally shot the experience, and they came to do the reveal the next day. I had to decide what we could and should do in a very short period of time … it was exciting!
Photos courtesy of Herschend Family Entertainment